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For the Public Good

While on parole in Oregon, homelessness, unemployment, and lack of services kept me in survival mode. This is not public safety.


Measure 110, which decriminalized drug possession in Oregon, has received outsize attention as being a failure, and the response from lawmakers and the governor has been a return to status quo: namely, criminalization and incarceration. Measure 110’s opponents, many of them in law enforcement, are curiously silent about the fact that this status quo itself has a far longer track record of being an utter, and enormously costly, failure. The intended infrastructure for Measure 110—access to treatment, an ability to find mental health providers, dedicated case workers ensuring this happens—never had a chance to succeed in the first place because it was never funded, let alone put in place.

Instead, people such as Sheriff Jef Van Arsdall, who leads the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, have suggested that Oregon’s experiment in decriminalization is the reason he has lost staff to Montana, where “possession of drugs is still a crime.” In reference to a deputy who recently left his office, Van Arsdall remarked that he couldn’t “fault him for wanting to go do proactive police work.” The sheriff, in other words, sees criminalization as a net positive. He seems more concerned with the appearance of good instead of actually providing it.

In 2022, in the lead-up to the county’s unsuccessful campaign to build a new jail, Van Arsdall offered a few other contradictions. He claimed that “if we got a 120-bed facility, now we’re talking about being able to have that accountability, those consequences, and with an updated facility that would provide treatment.” It is clear that he believes we can incarcerate our way out of a problem that incarceration has only accelerated. But I take particular exception to him making incarceration a prerequisite to providing treatment. One, because doing so is a false promise; and, two, because as someone who has experienced a form of incarceration while on parole, I can attest to how difficult it is to access treatment in Benton County—even treatment that is court-ordered.

The other disturbing quote from Van Arsdall, a nonpartisan elected official who has been in his post since 2021, is one I actually agree with because it perfectly captures the state of his current jail. “It was built as a temporary holding facility, and it was immediately outdated as soon as they opened the doors,” the sheriff said last year. What’s disturbing is that it shows the blind spots that I have experienced in Benton County as I’ve cycled through the system—and truly how law enforcement sees their role as strictly punitive and surveillance-based.

Again, I completely agree with the sheriff’s assessment, but for fundamentally different reasons. If I were reviewing all the county jails in TripAdvisor, as one reviews hotels, Benton County would undoubtedly score near the bottom. From experience, the place is filthy and unsanitary; there are no programs, whether inpatient drug treatment, cognitive-based treatments, anger management, or otherwise; and individuals spend unconstitutionally long stretches in solitary confinement during intake and when the jail is at capacity. The food isn’t terrible, though—it is at least edible and vacuum-packed.

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Yet what authority figures in this county choose to ignore is that all jails are built as temporary holding facilities. That is, without active investment in essential services that will help people succeed on the outside, they will continue to be obsolete as soon as they start operating.

This is a reality Van Arsdall overlooks when he is campaigning for support for his new jail, which remains his priority, even though voters have shot down the proposal time and again. He tells us how he is short-staffed, yet doesn’t specify how he plans on staffing his proposed 120-bed jail. He equates accountability with incarceration—the stripping of personal choice, where every waking decision is made for you—and he wants us to believe this approach teaches people personal responsibility. He tells us that the jail will be a provider of mental health and addiction services when currently the county does not even offer drug court and it is next to impossible to obtain a mental health intake evaluation. Not to mention how enormously expensive it is for taxpayers to build and to maintain an individual jail, year after year.

He isn’t alone. Most detractors of Measure 110 overlook similar realities. The worst offenders are the people entrusted to help operate it, among them patrol deputies and county sheriffs; they tend to see their roles as overwhelmingly punitive. Many of them deliberately sabotaged Measure 110, denying it a better chance at being seen as a success. Instead, these officials waxed sentimental over a carceral system that, on the whole, fails at improving public safety—and does so at enormous cost.

I don’t know the sheriff personally. But as someone who until very recently was on parole in Benton County, I’m intimately familiar with how he runs his temporary holding facilities. Likewise, I am all too familiar with how he runs his probation and parole departments, which are an extension of temporarily putting a person’s life on hold. Here’s how: I never had a permanent non-transient address while on supervision in Benton County. I was homeless there. I never had a legitimate, stable W-2 job approved by my Benton County parole and probation officer, a member of the sheriff’s department. For the first fourteen months of my active supervision in Benton County, I did not receive court-mandated cognitive-based treatment simply because Benton County did not have a state licensed provider for this essential service.

This is why I do not see how having a 120-bed jail—as opposed to the current, jerry-rigged 40-to-50-bed jail—solves any of these public safety issues. Because, yes, homelessness, joblessness, and no real opportunities for treatment are public safety issues. Yet Sheriff Van Arsdall’s response to the current jail not having enough beds is to seek more room for incarceration, no matter the cost—by renting beds in two other counties and shipping people there at a hefty price tag to taxpayers. By their own estimates, it costs Benton County $1 million annually to rent beds and transport individuals to other jails.

One of the jails Benton County rents beds out of is Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Center, or NORCOR for short. Please don’t be fooled by the term corrections; no actual programming is offered there. It’s just a fancier term than jail, which is all it is—and a faraway one at that, a 300-mile-plus roundtrip to and from Benton County. Because it has been deemed inappropriate to house Benton County individuals awaiting trial in NORCOR, the facility is strictly reserved for individuals returning to jail on so-called technical violations of parole and probation. That is, those without Benton County court dates and who could be incarcerated for something like missing a parole appointment, failing a urinalysis, or failing to abide by court-ordered conditions of supervision.

This is a Catch-22. I was housed in NORCOR for close to 150 days in the summer of 2022 on technical violations and pending charges in Multnomah County. In the course of serving my parole violation sanction for Benton County, I had multiple failures to appear rack up on my record because I could not make my Multnomah County court appearances. Not because I did not want to go to court, but because the system wouldn’t permit it: A place calling itself a correctional institution could not bother to facilitate a court appearance in another county, either virtually or in person, simply because my jailers there did not want to.

When I was released from the temporary holding facility, I was back on supervision in Benton County, where the same conditions of homelessness, unemployment, and lack of treatment persisted. The same conditions that were a huge factor in me absconding and failing to complete my parole sentence previously were still in place.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to enroll with other state-licensed treatment providers in a different county, and was willing to pay for them out of pocket, but was denied admission to these providers by my parole officer for petty reasons. One was that she did not believe in the effectiveness of the telecommuting model one provider had proposed; another reason was that she had a personal dispute with the therapist. If I did not complete my treatment within the one-year deadline that the court had imposed on me, I would have been in violation of my supervision and liable to be sanctioned for it with more jail time. Luckily, that didn’t happen; a few months later, in June 2023, Benton County contracted with a provider serving a neighboring county and I was able to complete my cognitive-based treatment in December, a full eight years after it was court-mandated.

The same conundrum occurred when I attempted to complete a court-ordered mental health evaluation. Again, if I did not complete this court mandate, I was going to be in violation. I tried multiple different providers in Benton County and was essentially told the same thing: They were not taking on any new clients and the waitlists were all closed. On a lark, I emailed my cognitive-based therapist for a mental health professional referral and she was able to help me find a professional who not only took my insurance but had availability. Of course, she was located in another county, but I had already cleared this with my parole officer, who this time cut me some slack.

If there were any rhyme or reason to how she made decisions about my life, there was no way for me to tell. (Inquest sought comment from the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the jail and people on parole supervision in the county, but did not receive a response addressing the author’s experiences while on parole.)

These real issues and costs of the current public safety model are not unique to Benton County. In Mass Supervision: Probation, Parole, and the Illusion of Public Safety, Vincent Schiraldi shows that the United States spends $2.8 billion annually to imprison people on technical violations of parole—arbitrarily enforced rule-breaking that does not involve a new arrest or conviction. On top of that, $400 million is spent simply supervising people once they are released from temporary holding facilities.

The alternatives to this highly unsuccessful model of criminal justice do not get the proper attention, much less the funding, that the current punitive system is granted in spades. Drug court, a Benton County alternative to incarceration for people with drug-related cases, has stopped and started three times since I’ve lived here; at the moment, it is not offered. On paper, drug court is supposed to be a mixture of cognitive-based therapy, intensive drug testing, and weekly court appearances. Because Benton County simply does not prioritize actual public safety measures—those that help people succeed outside the criminal system—they have stopped funding it. While drug court has its flaws—relying on coercion and externalities such as the threat of incarceration to enact change—it is still an alternative to direct incarceration that is not taken seriously.  

Aside from the measurable harmful consequences of keeping people isolated, without their most basic needs met and no access to support services, these deficiencies foster a growing disdain and mistrust of a system ostensibly meant to dispense justice. This is the greatest harm the current approach to criminal justice creates: It perpetuates violent mindsets. When trying to simply comply with supervision requirements forces a person into survival mode, the community at large is at risk. Denying someone access to essential needs does not exclusively happen in the vacuum of a temporary holding facility; it happens outside those walls and poses enormous risks to the person and the broader public that person interacts with.

Another consequence in people’s minds is the delegitimization of the criminal system. When individuals are given court dates, mandates to get into treatment, or ordered to comply with a laundry list of supervision requirements, and then the very system entrusted to facilitate these demands makes it all but impossible to successfully complete them, something is profoundly broken. The system sets you up to fail, thus exposing itself as a failure.

The irony is that it might require intensive counseling and other resources to get individuals out of this destructive cycle—to get them to accept that those in positions of authority truly have their health and safety in mind. Authorities would have to start being honest about their version of public safety first and stop treating their default position like it is something that works effectively. However, Sheriff Van Arsdall, those who passed and then rolled back Measure 110, and the vast majority of authorities in the criminal legal system in this country do not prioritize this version of accountability in their model of public safety. Instead, they want to perpetuate the far narrower version of it—the myth that incarceration stands for the public good, instead of actually providing it in more meaningful ways.

Image: Engin Akyurt/Unsplash